“My (Almost) Woodstock Experience”

Memoir by Jill Evans

When I was 13 I went to Woodstock. Not just the town but the actual festival that took place in Bethel in 1969. I wasn’t alone. My mother and older sister were there while my father and younger sister stayed home on Long Island.

Going to music festivals wasn’t unusual for our family. My parents were folk aficionados, and my mother often recalled seeing performances by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Their love of music usually had us piling into the car at 4 a.m. on Saturdays to attend folk festivals in New England or western New York.

Back then, festivals weren’t the spectacle they are today. There was no real set-up and people brought their own chairs. The stage consisted of a platform and a dull grey tarp for a backdrop. There were no fancy screens or sponsorship signs. It was just the performer and their music. When the set was over, the musician occasionally joined the crowd to thank everyone for coming.  We got to see many musicians that way — Joni Mitchell, the Everly Brothers, Arlo Guthrie, and even the greats like Muddy Waters and “Big Mama” Thornton.

My parents had no plans to take us to Woodstock, but it just so happened that on the day before the festival my mother, sister, and I found ourselves staying with relatives in Hancock, N.Y. That’s where my sister and I hatched a plan to convince our mother to take us to Woodstock. We piled into our red Dodge and headed down Route 17, ostensibly to go home, but my sister’s and my resolve were strengthened with each carload of hippies and college students we passed.

As we reached Harris, Mom pulled into the parking lot of a diner. The place was filled with counterculture types who weren’t shy about their enthusiasm for the concert. Their excitement overwhelmed us. At that moment, I felt like I was part of some exotic species engaged in a coming-of-age ritual that would have me emerging three days later as a mature warrior ready to carry on the traditions of the tribe.

But we never got there.

As my sister and I surveyed the festival around us we begged our mother to let us attend, but her annoyance was obvious. We didn’t have the money, or food, she reasoned. “Please,” we begged. After all, it wasn’t as if we’d never been to a concert. “And besides, Arlo Guthrie will be there.”

After a full 10 minutes of arguing, my mother was firm and without equivocation: “No.”

A momentary silence descended. It felt like an eternity. Those around us looked on as our disappointment took over. There was a family dressed in flowing beads and tie-dyed T-shirts at the counter and two guys with long hair sitting behind us. They said nothing but sensed our feelings. Then the waitress, who’d overheard our conversation, came over and gave a reassuring smile.

When we got home, we watched the news about Woodstock on television like everyone else. My mother said that it was good we didn’t go; she would have never gotten home in time for work on Monday. But in my 13-year-old eyes, I felt cheated. I wanted to be part of something special and this was my opportunity. Instead, I had to view it through the eyes of the Channel 7 cameras.

When we went back to school in September and my friends asked me what I’d done over the summer, I recounted the trips to Pennsylvania and the rides into Manhattan, and casually mentioned that I’d been to Woodstock, leaving out the fact that I’d been there the day before the concert. When they prodded me with questions I blurted out some vague answers until my sister — always the spoiler — explained that we really weren’t there; we’d just traveled through the day before, which made her smile but just embarrassed me.

Years later, I ventured with friends to Watkins Glen to see The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and The Band. The concert drew more than 600,000 people, and the papers said it was better than Woodstock. In actuality, the crowds, the lack of food and privacy, the hot sun and the dousing rains were probably similar to Woodstock, but it wasn’t the same. Experiences can be told and retold in movies and photos, but it’s not equal to actually being there. And when I was 13, I wanted to be there; to be a part of the universe where over half a million gentle people came together at a time when peace and love were sorely needed. What I didn’t realize until years later was that I was part of the experience, even if that meant just a few precious moments in a room of collective souls in a diner off of Route 17.

 


Jill Evans teaches creative writing at Suffolk County Community College.